Johnson’s administration had a dubious legal record before the pandemic. Now it is appallingby Alex Dean / June 12, 2020 / Leave a comment
Boris Johnson’s government had a controversial relationship with the rule of law from the start. The prime minister unlawfully prorogued parliament. When MPs later passed the Benn Act instructing him to seek a Brexit extension, he spent weeks briefing that he would do no such thing, only relenting at the last minute. Supporters said he was within his rights; critics said confidence in the rule of law was being undermined.
For sceptics of the current administration, both episodes offended fundamental ideas about how a government should behave.
Yet if those events provoked anguish, there was more to come. In the months since the virus has struck, the government, it is claimed, has stretched its relationship with the law even further beyond acceptable bounds. Several of the UK’s leading legal figures I have spoken to contend that he has violated democratic norms on various fronts.
Certainly, these are exceptional circumstances. Few would expect the government to lead the UK through an unprecedented pandemic without making mistakes, and certainly not in the early stages of the disease. But as time passes and the controversies don’t go away, there becomes less reason to give the government the benefit of the doubt. So what errors have been made and how serious are the implications?
After Johnson’s top adviser Dominic Cummings drove to Durham and then Barnard Castle with coronavirus symptoms, he convened a press conference to explain his actions at which he claimed they fell within the rules.
As we know, this was highly disputable. Regulation 6 of the measures then in force stated that “during the emergency period, no person may leave the place where they are living without reasonable excuse.” According to Stanley Burnton, a former Court of Appeal judge, it is doubtful this granted “permission to drive 30 miles to a beauty spot on your wife’s birthday with her and your son in order to test your eyesight.” In the aftermath, legal commentators spent days poring over the regulations, working out precisely how Cummings had violated them and making the argument on public forums. (Helpful explainers on the details of the case can be found here).
But even more important than the legal detail was the impression given. For…